Circa 1910, Lev Tolstoy was the most renowned writer and thinker in Russia. The man was so worshipped that he spawned his own political and philosophical movement – Tolstoyanism – that won over scores of fanatically devoted adherents who followed Tolstoy in rejecting notions of private property, condemning sexual intercourse, and embracing what can be described as an idiosyncratic form of communism, with a somewhat creepy religious bent. "I don't believe that Tolstoy is Christ," says one particularly revolting character in The Last Station, a fictionalized chronicle of Tolstoy's last days. "Christ is Christ. But I believe that he is a prophet."
I've read enough Tolstoy to know that the guy was essentially a crackpot. The main problem with The Last Station is that the movie – which wants badly to portray the man as sympathetic – spends most of its running time madly equivocating on this score. Certainly its depiction of his politics does Tolstoy no favors: his worldview appears as illogical and fanatical as it apparently was in real life. At the urging of his advisors, the man robs his wife of 48 years of the rights to his bestsellers, which he is convinced "belong to the people." When asked why his family shouldn't profit from what is, after all, his work, he says that if peasants had money, they wouldn't spend it on footservants – to which his wife, Countess Sofia Andreevna Tolstoya, reasonably replies that they would probably spend it on liquor.
The movie's solution to this is to suggest that Tolstoy himself – played by an Ian McKellen-esque Christopher Plummer – himself wasn't any sort of True Believer, but rather just a genial, eccentric old codger whose well-intentioned (if admittedly radical) politics were transformed into a cult-like phenomenon by his crazy acolytes, led by one Valentin Chertkov (Paul Giamatti). Indeed, Tolstoy readily tosses away his professed celibacy ("I say a lot of things," he shrugs) to carouse with Sofia Andreevna (Helen Mirren), which includes letting out an enthusiastic "cock-a-doodle-doo." And though he responds with a luddite scoff when one of his friends gifts him a newfangled phonograph, he promptly comes around once the phonograph starts playing some opera he likes.
Indeed, in the eyes of The Last Station, Tolstoy was a sort of harmless proto-hippie, standing for little more than peace and love, man, with a dose of freedom and social justice thrown in for good measure. And whatever the historical merits of that position, it isn't terribly interesting. Why tackle a subject as legendary as Tolstoy if you're just going to turn him into a doddering coot?
Tolstoy actually isn't The Last Station's protagonist; that would be Valentin Bulgakov (James McAvoy), a comically enthusiastic Tolstoyan who arrives at the leader's estate to act as his personal secretary – but really as a spy for Chertkov, who worries about the bad influence exerted by the decidedly non-believing Sofia Andreevna. Instead, Bulgakov finds himself sympathetic to Sofia Andreeva, while still worshipping Tolstoy and "the movement." And he shacks up with a fellow Tolstoyan who has a tendency to flout the strict rules of their colony – like the no-sex rule – 'cuz it's not about rules, don't you know. It's about love.
Bulgakov is too frustratingly non-committal to ground the film, which really has no center. Sofia Andreevna, whom The Last Station wants not just to admire but to lionize, spends a lot of time in full-on hysterics, and while it is sort of magnificent to watch Helen Mirren really swing away at a role, all the screaming soon becomes ridiculous. Aside from Chertkov, who's quickly established as the villain of the piece, the other supporting characters sort of float in and out of the movie aimlessly. There's not a lot to latch onto. The film, frankly, is a bit of a bore.
The Last Station's strong suit is its emphasis on the relative unimportance of abstract causes. Tolstoy, and his wife, and his kids, may have believed – truly, deeply believed – and number of things about social justice, property, religion, et cetera. In the end, these heady ideals didn't much matter. What mattered to Tolstoy were the people to whom he clung and with whom he chose to spend his life. This comes through well in the movie's strong conclusion, but by then it's too little too late. The Last Station appeared to reduce much of the audience here to tears, but at best I could take it or leave it. For the most part, it is frustrating, and disappointingly gutless.